Ocoee High band marches into Windy City for Thanksgiving

Ocoee High’s Marching Knights band basked in the national spotlight with a performance at Chicago’s Thanksgiving Day parade.

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  • | 2:08 p.m. November 25, 2018
Courtesy Thomas Lightbody @ TK Photography
Courtesy Thomas Lightbody @ TK Photography
  • West Orange Times & Observer
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Bernie Hendricks calls to his students, many of them clad in jackets or hoodies and all carrying instruments.

“Yes sir!” they shout back, as they shut down their side conversations and straighten their posture, waiting for instruction.

It’s 65 degrees outside during Ocoee High’s band practice Thursday, Nov. 15, and you can see fleece blankets wrapped around shoulders and hoods pulled up to warm up ears. This time next week, these Florida students know they are in for a shock when they have to march in the midst of Chicago’s crisp, 40-degree weather. 

But their excitement is palpable and, much like Elsa, the cold won’t bother them, anyway.

“(We) Floridians down here sitting in the hot weather, it’s always super exciting when we go up north,” said sophomore Jessica Smith, who plays the mellophone. “Some of us haven’t even seen snow.”

Ocoee’s band performs in Christmas parades every year, but every other year is a treat, because students have the opportunity to travel outside of Central Florida. This year, 120 of them hopped on a 20-hour bus ride to participate in the Chicago Thanksgiving Parade. And although it might not be cold enough for snow this time, band members are in for an experience they are sure to remember.



Hendricks, band director at Ocoee High, enjoys taking his students to perform out of town whenever possible. That’s why they travel every other year.

“It’s really cool that we’re able to use these God-given gifts that we have to be able to see different parts of the country,” Hendricks said. “It opens kids’ eyes to things they have never seen before, and it’s really cool and a blessing for us to be able to do that. Especially going up north — the possibility that we might actually see some snow — that’s kind of exciting, especially because these are all Florida kids.”

Hendricks applied for the band to be in Chicago’s Thanksgiving parade about 18 months ago and learned the Knights had been accepted late last year. He told his students, and immediately, the hype rippled throughout the band. 

“We were at some type of band meeting or practice when he announced it, and we all just went crazy,” said senior Robert Manzueta, who plays alto sax.

Joseph McMullen, founder of HAPCO Music Foundation, often works with Ocoee’s band and is an advocate for raising awareness and funds for arts and music education. 

“We’re always trying to keep kids engaged in the arts, and I’m trying to raise awareness (of them),” McMullen said. “We made a donation to the band program for the trip, and our biggest thing is helping them get to that performance and helping the kids have a great experience.”

McMullen knows intimately how an experience such as this will leave a lasting effect on the students.

“My high-school band went to Berlin, Germany,” he said. “I was 14 years old. … I still remember that trip like it was yesterday, so us pouring into (this) opportunity reminds me of what I experienced many years ago.”

Preparations for this opportunity have been underway for a while now. Students practice twice a week and have learned a different style of marching and fine-tuned their performance. They didn’t need to learn new music for the parade. Instead, Hendricks and his staff are borrowing pieces of the music they already know and rearranging them.

“We’re taking some stuff out of our show from this year, which was like a party-theme show,” Hendricks said. “We’re not doing any Christmas music, because it’s not quite Christmas yet. We’re not actually learning anything brand new, but we’re taking some of the stuff (we have), cutting and splicing it and putting it together as we create about 20 to 30 minutes worth of nonstop music, because that’s about the length of the actual parade. It’s not really long, but we want to make sure that we look and sound good.”


HAPCO Music Foundation founder Joseph McMullen and Ocoee High band director Bernie Hendricks
HAPCO Music Foundation founder Joseph McMullen and Ocoee High band director Bernie Hendricks

Out-of-town trips such as these don’t come cheap, but Hendricks and his staff don’t mind. They know that the opportunities are worth every penny.

Because of the financial implications, the trips aren’t mandatory. Each student was required to raise nearly $1,100 to go this year — but funding is necessary for transportation, hotel, uniform cleaning and staffing.

“We did a mattress fundraiser where we sold mattresses, and that brought in a good chunk of about $8,000, and then we (also) performed a lot,” Hendricks said. “A lot of our performances — especially in the spring toward the end of the year — we had performances at Full Sail and a couple of different hotels and events. These events — they paid for us to come play — so we were able to take that money and put it toward the overall cost of the trip. Then the kids all paid an individual fee to go. It’s been good. The fundraising has been slow, but it’s been steady. We washed some cars and did some things we needed to do to get there. … And here we are.”

Thanks to the school’s administration, the band just received new uniforms three weeks ago for the first time since 2006. 

But there’s still a need for funding. As of Thursday, Nov. 15, the band was still about $3,500 short of its fundraising goal to cover the cost of the trip. Hendricks said the band was able to cover it with some of the band’s in-house money, but it doesn’t leave much funding left over.

“We really need to keep these programs at the forefront. … They travel locally and throughout the state, but at the end of the day, in order to continue being part of the process, there’s a cost associated,” McMullen said. 

“The community and the city have really been supportive,” Hendricks said. “We’ve gotten donations in, Mr. McMullen got us a big donation, just random people have given $20 here and $50 there. … It’s been really neat to see the community come together and support us like that. It brings it all into perspective.”


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